“I had an accountant who used to make me crazy,” a friend tells me. “So I switched to one who always makes me feel fine, no matter what we’re talking about.”
That we gravitate to people who we enjoy being with is obvious. When it comes to the business world, cranky store clerks drive away business, just as that off-putting accountant drove away my friend. But this dynamic for keeping customers and clients satisfied seems to be ignored time and again by businesses. Thus the need to keep finding new ways to make the same old case for hiring for, or developing, interpersonal intelligence skills in those who are at the front lines of customer or client service.
That seems to be the point of an article I read in the Journal of Services Marketing [19/7, 2005, 438-444] called “The impact of service provider emotional intelligence on customer satisfaction,” by Sally Kernback and Nicolar Schutte at the University of New England, in Australia.
They assessed three levels of EI in clerks. At the highest level, the clerk anticipated how the customer would feel, expressed his own feelings clearly, showed that he understood the consequences of these feelings, and acted in ways that led to a positive emotional outcome – presumably they both felt good at the end of the interaction.
At the medium level of EI, the clerk was able to perceive, express and understand the emotions, but was poor at managing his own reactions. And the complete dud in EI showed no understanding of the emotions flying back and forth, nor the least ability to manage his own. Not surprisingly, the more EI the clerk displayed, the greater the satisfaction of the customer with the encounter.
The most intriguing finding, though, came not during run-of-the-mill transactions, but in difficult moments, like when a customer was returning an item that they were unhappy with. Here the EI dud had the strongest negative effect, creating the most customer dissatisfaction. Even a moderate amount of EI helped boost satisfaction during what this kind of dicey exchange.
This suggests that while EI drives customer satisfaction in the vast amount of day-to-day routine transactions in a store, the lack of it matters even more when a customer has a complaint. Hiring, promoting and training employees for EI, then seems one key to repeat business. Seems obvious, but bears repeating.
The study, which used simulations, needs to be repeated in actual stores with real clerks and customers. I’d like to see a study that looked at what emotions are transmitted in which direction during a business transaction – and how satisfied each person is afterward. I suspect the active ingredient in how satisfied we are with a given interaction in a store comes down largely to emotional contagion, as I describe in Chapters One and Two of Social Intelligence.